Midterm grades: The Eagles are 7-1 for the first time since 2004

The last time the Eagles were this good they went to the Super Bowl.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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It’s the halfway point of the NFL season for the Eagles, and the Birds are 7-1 and the best team in the NFL.

That’s not even a subjective opinion at this point in the season. The Eagles are objectively the best team in the NFL and Carson Wentz is on a very short list of players with a real shot to win MVP.

Doug Pederson’s offense has scored 29 points per game, fourth-best in the NFL. They have the sixth-most yards per game and, oddly, the fifth-most rushing yards per game after barely running the ball the first few weeks of the season.

Through eight games, the Eagles have run 532 offensive plays (not counting accepted penalties) and in that have had 264 passing attempts and 246 rushes. That’s pretty darn good balance.

The Eagles have 172 offensive first downs through eight games, while holding their opponents to just 143. They’re a ridiculous 54-for-113 on third down and 5-for-6 on fourth down, compared to just 31-for-100 and 3-for-10 for their opponents on third and fourth downs, respectively.

The Eagles defense is giving up just 19.5 points per game, 10th-best in the NFL, while their rush defense is tops in the league, allowing just 70.4 yards per game. The only knock on the Eagles at all seems to be the pass defense, which is allowing 256.8 yards per game — 26th of 32 teams in the NFL — but some of that can be attributed to the fact teams can’t run on them, so they have to do something to move the football down the field.

There’s really nothing stopping the Eagles at this point. Except the obvious: Injuries.

Compared to, say, the Green Bay Packers, you can say the Eagles have been lucky with injuries. It’s just…they’ve been very injured already.

Darren Sproles was one of the key pieces of the offense and he got hurt in the third game of the season and is out for the year. Jason Peters, the future Hall of Famer at left tackle, tore two ligaments in his knee last week and is out for the year. Jordan Hicks, the player defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz called the “quarterback of the defense” tore his Achilles last week and is out for the year.

Rookie running back Donnel Pumphrey hurt his hamstring back in September and he’s out for the year. Special teams specialist Chris Maragos, who had to fill in at safety the week the Eagles only had one healthy player at that position, is out for the year with a knee injury. Caleb Sturgis, the team’s kicker, hurt his quad and the team found Jake Elliott off the street and he’s become a cult hero.

NFL: New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Those are just the season-ending injuries, which doesn’t account for Fletcher Cox missing two and a half games this season because of injury, or Lane Johnson missing the Thursday night game in Carolina when both teams were 4-1 or starting safety Rodney McLeod missing one game or Ronald Darby, the lockdown corner the team traded Jordan Matthews to get from Buffalo, missing all but half the first game of the season with a dislocated ankle. There’s also Mychal Kendricks, who missed last week, and Wendell Smallwood, who missed two weeks earlier in the year.

These are all key players at important positions and despite missing them, Eagles keep plugging away and winning games.

Defensive end Brandon Graham was asked about all the injuries after the game, and he echoed the same thing his head coach and his quarterback have been saying all year long: “Next Man Up.”

“Yeah, it’s tough when you have good guys go down,” Graham said after Sunday’s win. “You always miss those guys but it’s always the next man up. And I think, like I said, it’s credit to our bench. We have a bunch of guys ready to play.”

It’s remarkable, really. Outside of the receivers and quarterback, every position group has had significant injuries this season and outside of a close loss in Kansas City, they haven’t missed a beat. The next man up has really stepped up.

So let’s run through some mid-season grades. The team gets an A+. Duh.

Quarterback: A+

Wentz has shown remarkable improvement over his rookie season. He’s tied for the league lead with 19 touchdown passes and he has just five interceptions. Last year he finished his first season with 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He’s lost two fumbles this season to three last year and while his completion percentage is down from last year — a ho-hum 61 percent — he’s completed 21 of 32 passes in the red zone with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions. On third down this season, Wentz is completing 67.7 percent of his throws, eight touchdowns and just one interception. On third or fourth down and 9 or more yards to go, Wentz is 20-for-27 with three scores.

Running backs: B-

This feels generous, but the Eagles are somehow fifth in the NFL in rushing yards per game! LeGarrette Blount was wholly ineffective the first few weeks, and even got benched, but since pressed into action after Sproles went down, Blount has looked like the back the Eagles had hoped when they signed him. He’s rushed 100 times for 467 yards, in the top 10 in the NFL this year. And while he has just two scores, the Eagles aren’t lacking for red zone touchdowns.

Receivers: B

Nelson Agholor has been an enormous surprise, as the guy many of us (read: me) called a bust already has 27 receptions and five touchdowns. Zach Ertz might be the best receiving tight end in football and yes I know Gronk still plays and Travis Kelce still plays and Jimmy Graham just caught two touchdowns Sunday. Ertz has 43 catches for 528 yards and six scores and it’s hard to look at anyone at the position as more valuable to his quarterback.

With Sproles out, the backups have been Smallwood and Corey Clement. Wentz being the second-leading rusher on the team with 203 yards on 42 carries is not good. That’s too many carries, and with the number of sacks, far too many hits.

Alshon Jeffery had a monster touchdown Sunday, but it was just his third of the season, as he and Wentz haven’t been on the same page as much as either have wanted. Jeffery has just 28 catches, while Torrey Smith has been the non-factor in the passing game most of us expected.

The biggest surprise? Trey Burton has been a non factor in the passing game. But if that’s the biggest complaint, especially now that Jeffery is getting big receptions, Eagles fans should take it.

Offensive line: A

It’s hard to give the offensive line anything other than top marks, as they’ve protected Wentz despite using a host of backups. With Peters out, Halapoulivaati Vaitai has been installed at left tackle. He was good in pass protection Sunday, less so against the run. Johnson and Brandon Brooks have the right side of the line on lockdown, while Jason Kelce has had a much better season than he did last year.

Left guard has been an adventure. Isaac Seumalo started the season at left guard and he was terrible, so the team benched him after a few weeks and went with the rotation of Chance Warmack and Stefen Wisniewski. When it was clear that nobody beats the Wis, he was give the starting job and he’s done well enough to keep him there. Perhaps the Eagles’ line is not the best unit in the NFL like they were prognosticated to be, especially with Peters out for the year, but they’ve been a strength of the offense.

Defense: A-

Look, we could break down the defense by position group, but the end result will be the same. Could they be better? For sure. But they are playing well.

The Eagles have 22 sacks, which is tied for ninth in the league, with nine interceptions and four fumbles recovered, the fifth-most takeaways in the NFL.

They’ll have to buckle down in the pass defense against some very good quarterbacks, which should be bolstered by Darby’s imminent return. And let’s not forget the Eagles drafted Sidney Jones in the second round and had expected him to contribute later in the season. Who knew the year would go the way it has?

Replacing Hicks long term is a concern, but the linebackers have played well when healthy, led by Nigel Bradham, who is quietly having a Pro Bowl season. So is Jenkins at safety and Tim Jernigan at defensive tackle. Really the whole defensive line is playing at a high level, from Graham to Chris Long to rookie Derek Barnett who has come on in recent weeks. And Cox, when healthy, is impossible to block.

This is a very good defense, and it might be getting better soon.

Special teams: A

Elliott missed two extra points Sunday but as a field goal kicker he’s been nearly perfect, especially from beyond 50 yards. Punter Donnie Jones has been his regular reliable self.

Coaching: A+

There’s no question Pederson and his staff deserve all the credit for this remarkable start. This is a team most thought would be 7-9 again and they have that many wins in half the games.

Pederson may have stumbled into a lot of this success — the offensive balance didn’t come until Sproles was out for the year, for example — but this team is among the league’s best on both sides of the ball because of scheme as much as talent. That’s on the coaches.

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